My Problem with The Final Problem and The Empty House, part one

The struggle at Reichenbach FallsI admit it; I am obtuse, dense, clueless, unaware and generally see but do not observe. So these are my excuses for my own poor observations on my problems with The Final Problem and The Empty House, the stories in which we learn of those tragic events at Reichenbach Falls and the joyful revelation that causes Watson to faint for “the first and the last time in my life.” Incidentally, there are spoilers here for those new to Sherlock Holmes.

I am sure none of my observations will be of news to Holmes scholars but I have purposefully not researched this question because I want to see what faculties of observation and deduction I might possess. To summarize the stories if you’re new to Holmes: In FINA, Holmes reveals to Watson that he has uncovered a criminal mastermind, Professor James Moriarty, and that Holmes is poised to take down Moriarty’s criminal enterprise, but needs to lie low (Moriarty has pledged Holmes’ death) while his plans are set in motion. He proposes to Watson they flee to the Continent and eventually find themselves in Switzerland and the town of Meiringen. But Moriarty has tracked Holmes and they struggle beside the Reichenbach Falls and Holmes’ chronicler John Watson believes them both to have perished in the falls.

In EMPT, Holmes returns to London after a three-year absence and gives Watson the shock of his life. He explains that he allowed Watson and the world to believe that he was dead so that he might operate unencumbered by any retaliation from the remnants of Moriarty’s gang. However, in London, he asks Watson’s help to catch Moriarty’s lieutenant, Colonel Sebastian Moran, who attempts to kill Holmes at 221B Baker Street.

Today I will examine some of the oddities of FINA and tomorrow the even more baffling mystery of EMPT.

Those who believe that Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the Sherlock Holmes stories know that the author, tired of writing the very popular detective tales and desirous of writing serious historical fiction, killed off his creation in a blaze of glory, hoping to bury Holmes with a stake of holly through his heart. “I must save my mind for better things,” he wrote to his mother at the time, “even if it means I must bury my pocketbook with him.” (I have these quotes from the Wikipedia article.)

But FINA is such an odd Holmes story for several reasons. Except for those stories before his association with Watson or after his retirement, Watson always plays a role in the investigation and is always present for the denouement. Admittedly he is sometimes separated from Holmes, but generally he has met the client and the person exposed as the culprit. In FINA, however, all the evidence in the adventure is told to Watson by Holmes; there is no external corroboration of any of the details such as a newspaper account. This is explained by saying Moriarty is such a criminal mastermind that there is no hint of his existence. Now I may be clueless and trusting but I think Watson outshines me in his gullibility.

The Seven-Per-Cent SolutionIt all sounds rather fishy to me. Were I reading the story without any foreknowledge, I think I would immediately doubt Holmes’ story. In fact it’s this fishiness that allowed Nicholas Meyer to write The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, which gives an entirely different interpretation of the events in FINA.

There is also no mystery at the heart of FINA, except for the mystery of Holmes’ death. In the Jeremy Brett/Granada television production of FINA, the producers start with the theft of the Mona Lisa (which really did happen in 1911), attributing it to Moriarty. I think they just wanted an actual crime on which to hang the tale.

There’s also just the whole story of needing to leave the country: “Matters have gone so far now that they can move without my help as far as the arrest goes, though my presence is necessary for a conviction. It is obvious therefore that I cannot do better than get away for the few days which remain before the police are at liberty to act.” This smells of salted cod. Holmes will leave the whole matter in Lestrade’s capable hands? (All this will prove even more baffling when we confront EMPT.)

So what interpretation can I make of this? Is it simply that Doyle’s eagerness to kill off his character resulted in an improbable story? Or is there a more sinister possibility? Maybe there is no Moriarty. Maybe Holmes has created Moriarty a la North by Northwest (I have not bothered to Google how many times this has been suggested). Afer all, to my knowledge, Moriarty is only mentioned in FINA, EMPT, The Norwood Builder, The Missing Three-Quarter and The Valley of Fear (passing references in the last three). To my knowledge, no characters in the Canon beside Holmes mentions Moriarty.

What reason can Holmes have for inventing Moriarty? Well, here “we come into those realms of conjecture where the most logical mind can be at fault.” Did Holmes like Doyle simply want to get away for a while? (Notice I included Doyle in that statement. Because it is obvious to any fan of soap operas, science fiction or Agatha Christie that if you have a character die and a body can’t be found, there is every reason to suspect that person is still alive. Maybe Doyle pulled a New Coke: kill off Holmes and return him to even better ratings, but like the Coke executives, I doubt Doyle was either that stupid or that smart or that cynical.)

And what proof is there that Moriarty never existed? Actually, the better question is what proof is there that Moriarty existed? Watson never meets him. He sees a train go by that Holmes says Moriarty engaged. Watson sees “a black figure” at the falls that “passed from his mind.” Moriarty is a fiction. And if he is a fiction, then it is no wonder that his body was never found.

Holmes and Moriarty by Sidney PagetThere is also the more troubling possibility I mentioned that Holmes is Moriarty. Could Holmes actually be at the heart of Moriarty’s organization and was the law closing in on him, necessitating his escape to the Continent and making Moriarty’s “death” a convenient way to avoid prosecution? Who has not looked at the Sidney Paget drawing of Holmes and Moriarty and not noticed a similarity. Moriarty could easily be Holmes in disguise.

Of course too much cerebration leads one into even more fantastic realms. That resemblance, could it be father and son? Might Holmes be suffering a mental illness, believing himself to be Moriarty? Might Moriarty exist only in Holmes’ mind or did he actually don the garb of the professor and create the criminal enterprise he set out to destroy?

So these are my problems with The Final Problem and tomorrow I hope to address The Empty House.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: